BOSTON – The recent court ruling striking down a national eviction moratorium has heightened concerns that tenants won't receive tens of billions of dollars in promised federal aid in time to avoid getting kicked out of their homes.
A federal judge on Wednesday found the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention exceeded its authority when it imposed the moratorium last year. Housing advocates believe the ban saved lives and not only should continue, but be extended past its initial June 30 deadline.
For now, the moratorium remains: A judge stayed the court's order following an appeal from the Justice Department.
Without the moratorium, advocates say, the only thing standing between many tenants and eviction is the nearly $50 billion allocated by Congress for rental assistance. Advocates say very few tenants have received any of the money — which is up to individual states to distribute — and they fear it won't get to the neediest people in time if the moratorium is scrapped.
“Unfortunately, rental assistance funds are not reaching struggling families nearly as quickly as is needed,” said Oren Sellstrom, litigation director for the Lawyers for Civil Rights in Boston. “Here in Massachusetts, tenants report that submitting a rental assistance application is like sending it into a black hole.”
The government didn't do much better last year, when several states failed to spend the federal coronavirus relief monies they had set aside for rental assistance, the advocates said. Among them were New York, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Mississippi and Kansas.
Diane Yentel, CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, said some of the same problems are being seen now, namely landlords refusing to participate, programs refusing to give money directly to tenants and cumbersome application processes.
“The CDC moratorium is essential to our efforts to prevent people from getting evicted before they can get rental assistance,” said Caitlin Cedfeldt, a staff attorney at Legal Aid of Nebraska.
Landlords, many of whom have challenged the moratorium, say the court's decision increases pressure on the federal and state governments to speed up rental assistance distribution.
“Instead of propping up legally-questionable policies, government at every level needs to cut the red tape and focus on distributing the $46 billion in rental assistance efficiently,” Bob Pinnegar, president & CEO of the National Apartment Association, said in an email interview. “Getting rental assistance funds into the hands of those renters and rental housing providers who need it most is the only way to prevent irrevocable harm to our nation’s housing supply.”
President Joe Biden's administration on Friday announced changes aimed at doing just that. Government agencies implementing the rental relief program will be required to offer assistance directly to renters if landlords choose not to participate, said Gene Sperling. Sperling is the White House coordinator of Biden's American Rescue Plan, a sweeping, $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package Congress passed to help the country defeat the coronavirus and nurse the economy back to health. Also, the waiting time for delivering the assistance to renters is cut in half if landlords aren't involved, Sperling said.
“We need to make sure that as we implement these emergency funds that we are nimble enough to address growing needs,” he said.
The eviction ban was put in place last year to prevent families from losing their homes and moving into shelters or sharing crowded conditions with relatives or friends, conditions health officials said could exacerbate the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus.
Proponents of the moratorium argue it is necessary since the pandemic is still a threat and so many people are at risk of eviction or foreclosure. Nearly 4 million people in the U.S. said they faced eviction or foreclosure in the next two months, according to the Census Bureau’s biweekly Household Pulse Survey.
“In the short term, Congress and the Biden administration have the power to strengthen the moratorium across the country and halt all evictions for the remainder of the pandemic,” Dawn Phillips, executive director of Right To The City Alliance, a national coalition of 90 housing-justice organizations, said in an email interview.
A handful of states are picking up the slack themselves. The state of Connecticut and the city of Philadelphia both have their own eviction moratoriums in place.
“While we’re ahead of the curve in working to get our rental relief money out compared to our peers, we still have a long way to go,” said Democratic Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, who indicated that his state's moratorium would probably remain in place for another month. " ... We’re trying to work with tenants and landlords to put together something that allows people to stay in their homes a lot longer.”
In Philadelphia, lawmakers credit a local moratorium with helping to reduce evictions from about 20,000 a year to only 5,000 last year. On top of that, a program started in September requires landlords to apply for rental assistance prior to going to court to evict tenants. The so-called diversion program has been credited with preventing thousands of evictions.
“We had to create alternatives to eviction,” said Philadelphia City Council member Helen Gym, who helped put the program in place.
Associated Press writer Susan Haigh in Norwich, Connecticut, contributed to this report.